Fighting games based on Japanese RPGs are something we have seen before. The Final Fantasy: Dissidia series is a recent example, but we have never seen one in a more 2D traditional vein until now. Enter Persona 4 Arena, made by Atlus and Arc System Works. The game has been out at Japanese arcades since earlier this year, but it finally received the console treatment on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Atlus is quickly becoming the premier Japanese-based publisher, especially in the last couple years with 2011’s successful hit Catherine. Arc System Works have been known for the Guilty Gear and Blazblue franchises, so on paper, this sounds off like a great pairing for a fighting game set in the Persona universe. As it turns out, Persona 4 Arena is more than a great pairing of two known entities in the Japanese gaming world. It is a superb fighting game that will satisfy both Persona fans and fighting game aficionados. The game is Arc’s most accessible game yet, but is also fun and deep enough for higher level players.
Persona 4 Arena’s story mode is arguably the longest one I ever played in a fighting game, which is both a good and bad thing. The story takes place two months after the events of Persona 4, where Yu Narukami is going back to Inaba for Golden Week to reunite with the Investigation Team. However, this is not some ordinary vacation as the Midnight Channel mysteriously comes back to air the night before everyone is meeting up. This is not Persona 4 again though because the channel shows an ad for a fighting tournament called the P-1 Grand Prix featuring most of the cast fighting against each other. Kanji, Rise and Teddie were also missing in related to this incident, so Yu, Yousuke, Chie and Yukiko jump back into the TV world to try and find their missing friends and figure out who is behind this whole mess.
Along the way, this whole storyline also centers around Labrys, a completely new character. Labrys somehow stumbles into the TV world disguised as a student council president, yet not knowing her true identity. As you progress through the story mode with the whole cast, Labrys turns out to be more than just she was introduced as. Mitsuru, Akihiko and Aigis from Persona 3 are also involved in this conflict, with their own agenda relating to Labrys. What I enjoyed about the story mode is that I got to see the storyline from every character’s perspective. In other words, you get to play as the whole Persona roster and it is nice to see what the cast has been up to leading up to this. However, the main reason why this story mode is lengthy is that you have to sit through hours and hours of reading text as if you’re reading a novel. Most of the text will be characters narrating from their own perspectives, but once they run into each other, they have voice overs. The fights are also not that long—they're one round and easy to plow through, which is great for fans that want to continue on with the story that aren’t into the fighting game genre.
At some points, there are choices certain characters face, and one bad decision can lead to a bad ending. In addition, the story cuts off two-thirds of the way through with every character, giving the player a “To be continued” message to make them play again with the rest of the roster in order to see the whole story. Story mode almost felt like a grind as well when playing through the whole cast because you have to sit through the same anime cutscenes and dialogue for certain scenes. Despite some faults, I had a good time with Persona 4 Arena’s story mode because of the attachment I had with the characters and the universe to keep going. That alone will satisfy fans of the franchise.
Besides the lengthy story mode, the other modes are what you'd expect in a fighting game. Arcade Mode is pretty self-explanatory, offering nine fights and an ending. This is also an abridged version of the story mode in some way because you have a conversation with some characters before fighting. Score Attack is a difficult mode pitting you against unlimited versions of the cast to score points. For newcomers, it is best to go through Lesson Mode as it does a good enough job to teach the basics and systems. Challenge Mode is basically the trial mode seen in Capcom’s fighting games that starts you with special moves and basic combos to more advanced combos that require a high level of execution. This is also a good way to learn characters with what they’re capable of and learning their combos to use against the opposition. There is also online play, which is also standard fighting game fare with ranked and player matches, lobbies, replays, ranking system and spectator mode while in a lobby. As far as the netcode is concerned, it is great on the PS3, but the 360 version had issues for the first week. Atlus and Arc were quickly able to release a patch addressing that issue on the 360 and the online is as smooth as the PS3 version.
Since this is a still a fighting game, how is the actual fighting? Folks that played previous Arc System Works fighters such as Guilty Gear and Blazblue will feel right at home with Persona 4 Arena. Most of the mechanics are similar to those games from bursts, air dashing and recovery and instant kills if you have a high enough meter. Despite these similarities, this is Arc’s most accessible fighting game yet because everyone’s move list mostly consists of quarter-circle motions to do special moves and another one for supers. Even all their instant kills have the same inputs, but like Guilty Gear and Blazblue, they are rarely seen in a normal match. Each character also has an auto combo where you press the A button five times (X on 360 and square on PS3) to do an easy combo to a super move for some decent damage. It is nice that newcomers have easy ways to deal damage, but more advanced combos are the way to go if you want to deal more damage. Another neat mechanic is the awakening mode, which is activated whenever a character has about a quarter of health left. They gain access to another super move along with having their damage and defense increased.
What separates Persona 4 Arena from Arc’s previous games is the Persona system. Like the RPGs, they are the key to a character’s offense. Each character’s Persona has four health cards and if it gets depleted, it gets broken for a limited time, but comes back after that. Having your Persona broken can be bad since most of your options and moves are disabled for a little bit. Arc took the source material of Atlus’s franchise very seriously and made the characters true to themselves as they appear in the RPGs. Chie, for example, is known for her kicks and so she is primarily a kick character in this game. Most of the roster also has their own special meter that cater to their style. Yukiko has her magic fire spells to keep opponents away and she can stock up on more power via her meter. Another neat touch from the Persona games included in Arena is status ailments. Characters can be paralyzed, confused, poisoned, etc. by certain moves. Despite having lots of systems, which is expected for an Arc game, the fighting as a whole is fun, fast and frantic for both newcomers and experienced players in the genre.
Similar to Arc System Works’ prior games, Persona 4 Arena looks beautiful in motion and the screenshots don’t do it justice. The cel-shaded, anime style definitely fits the game and Atlus’s source material. There is no instances of slowdown at all, despite how fast and frantic the game can be. The anime cutscenes in the story mode also look amazing, even though there are only a handful of them and are often recycled for most of the cast. The soundtrack in this game has original and remixed tracks from Persona 3 and 4. Considering how great those tracks were in the RPGs, they’re great to listen to again in Arena. This is arguably one of the best fighting game soundtracks I've heard this generation—it's a good mix of rock, rap and pop you'd expect from the franchise. I also did not have much of an issue with the English voice overs, but you can switch to the Japanese ones if you prefer those. The Arc games were also known for having their characters being very chatty during fights, but that is not much of a problem here in Arena.
Persona 4 Arena is a superb fighting game package that satisfies both fans of the franchise and fighting games. There is something for both audiences with the story mode for the fans since it is a sequel to Persona 4 and the general fighting for those that love the genre. It is also Arc System Works’ most accessible game yet as it is easy to pick up and play for newcomers while deep for experienced players in the genre, especially those that played Guilty Gear and Blazblue before. The fighting is very fun, fast and frantic as expected for an Arc game. While the story mode is the longest one I've played in a fighting game, I was invested and attached to the characters and franchise despite sitting through hours of text pressing the X button a lot. This is one beautiful game to watch from a graphical standpoint because of its cel-shaded and anime style. The music and voice overs are also great with the soundtrack arguably being my favorite one this console generation. Persona 4 Arena may be my early contender for fighting game of the year, and for Persona fans and those who love fighting games, this is one game you should not miss.